Is Progressive Education Dead?

April 01, 2000 2 min read

In January 1896, John Dewey gathered 16 children in a small brick house in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago was to be Dewey’s petri dish, an experimental program to test his ideas about education: that children learn best by doing, that students themselves should decide the curriculum, and that education is at heart an exercise in democracy.

If he were alive today, Dewey would surely laugh at some of what’s done in his name. The tradition he began has mutated many times over, with different strands emerging dominant at different times. Entering its second century, the Deweyian ideal has collected dozens of counterfeits and thousands more copycats. Still, it remains a strong influence in American education. Progressivism is not pervasive in every school or even every district, but for many teachers, it’s the star to steer by.

For those who raise the progressive flag in the classroom, however, these are hard times. Virtually every state has adopted reforms to set standards for learning and make schools accountable. Behind these policies are assumptions about teaching, learning, and schools that are seemingly antithetical to Dewey’s ideas. How, for example, can a teacher build lessons around students’ interests when the state mandates what’s to be taught? Progressives who have fought the tide claim theirs is not just a battle of ideas: Alternative schools are in danger, they contend, and perhaps even public education itself. “I can’t think of any time in history when things have been so bleak,” says one.

Given such dire predictions, we devote this special issue to examining progressive education in the modern era—investigating the claims that it’s endangered and considering its relevance. Our first story (“Call To Arms”) looks at how some of the country’s most famous progressive gurus—including Deborah Meier and Alfie Kohn—are fighting the testing system deployed by the state of Massachusetts. Then, in a piece that delivers a counterpoint to the arguments of those renegades (“Let It Be”), we focus on teachers at an alternative public school in California who testify to the good that standards have brought to their classrooms.

The issue also features an excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s forthcoming book, Ordinary Resurrections. Kozol often tackles issues of social justice and equity, his words crackling with passion and polemic. But here, the 64-year-old author mellows somewhat and explores a topic he’s touched on only briefly in other books: teaching.

With Kozol and other progressive legends—Meier, Ted Sizer, and Herb Kohl among them—getting long in the tooth, we also profile five young teacher leaders (“New Blood”) to see how the next generation of progressives is keeping the faith and tweaking the tradition. Finally, we round out the issue with essays that revisit classic progressive books and consider their enduring value for the teacher who still looks to Dewey for answers.

—The Editors